Inspiring a new generation of scientists at WUSTL

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) has selected Washington University as one of 12 colleges and universities to participate in a nationwide genomics course that will involve first-year college students in genomics research with phages (bacterial viruses).

The new course is the first major initiative from HHMI’s Science Education Alliance, which seeks to enhance the teaching of science and inspire new generations of scientists.

In fall 2008, first-year students at six undergraduate institutions and six research-intensive institutions will take part in a yearlong research course — the Phage Genomics Research Initiative — which is being developed by the Science Education Alliance (SEA).

The SEA, headquartered at HHMI’s Janelia Farm Research Campus in Ashburn, Va., will foster the development of a national network of scientists and educators who work collaboratively to develop and distribute new materials and methods to undergraduate programs. HHMI has built the SEA using the knowledge and experience it has gained from supporting science education advances in the United States over the past 20 years.

The University has received grants from HHMI totaling more than $7 million since 1992 to support undergraduate research, improvements in curriculum and K-12 science education outreach initiatives.

“The phage genomics course is the beginning of the transformation that the Science Education Alliance hopes to bring to science education,” said Tuajuanda C. Jordan, Ph.D., a biochemist and director of the SEA. “The institutions that we have chosen really see the long-term impact that the program can have on their students and their institutions. The participating faculty has support at all levels for implementing and expanding on the program.”

Students at each institution will participate in the two-semester phage genomics research course in which they will be taught to use sophisticated research techniques. Students will isolate phages from their local soil, prepare the viral DNA for sequencing, and annotate and compare the sequenced genome.

The goal is to immerse students in the process of science and to equip them with the critical thinking and communication skills necessary for successful research careers.

At WUSTL, the curriculum will take the form of a two-semester freshman seminar for 20 students, according to project director Sarah C. Elgin, Ph.D., the Viktor Hamburger Professor in Arts & Sciences and professor of biology, of education and of genetics, all in Arts & Sciences, and an HHMI Professor. In the fall, April Bednarski, Ph.D., lecturer in biology, will be lab instructor, and Petra Levin, Ph.D., assistant professor of biology, will provide expertise in phage/microbes. In the spring, Chris Shaffer, Ph.D., will be lab instructor, and Douglas E. Berg, Ph.D., the Alumni Endowed Professor of Molecular Microbiology, professor of genetics and professor of internal medicine at the School of Medicine, will provide expertise in phage/microbes.

Elgin said the University is pleased to participate in the pilot phase of this project.

“The phage genomics course fits very well with our overall strategy of building research experiences into our academic-year course work,” Elgin said. “Spending a summer working in a lab is, of course, an ideal way to gain an introduction to research — but it isn’t for everyone, so our research-oriented laboratory courses are an important part of our curriculum.

“We know from our own students that few things are as engaging as research per se, being in charge of your own project, characterizing something new, making a contribution to the scientific endeavor. We are delighted to be able to offer a research lab course that is designed for freshmen — most freshmen are excited simply to be here, and we want to keep that intellectual excitement in high gear. One of our goals during the implementation phase will be to see if there are ways to extend this to a much larger cohort of students,” Elgin said.

The SEA is a new direction for HHMI, which for two decades has funded science education programs run by faculty and teachers at institutions across the United States.

By creating the SEA, HHMI is taking a more active role in catalyzing change in science education. The institute is staffing the SEA program with its own employees who are building the alliance with the help of HHMI’s extensive network of grantees and educators, including those at WUSTL. HHMI is committing a total of $4 million over the first four years of the program.

The process began last fall, when the HHMI invited all four-year institutions to apply to participate in the Phage Genomics Research Initiative. HHMI received 44 applications and selected 12 institutions.

Each institution will receive up to three years of support from HHMI to assist with faculty training, reagents, computing support and DNA sequencing services for the course. Faculty from participating institutions will attend three training workshops at Janelia Farm before teaching the course.

Twelve more institutions will join the program in fall 2009 and another 12 in fall 2010. When the initiative is running at capacity, 36 institutions and approximately 720 students will be participating. After three years of initial support by SEA, institutions wishing to continue offering the course must provide their own financial resources to cover reagents, sequencing and computing costs.

It is anticipated that the cost of sequencing will decrease dramatically in the next few years, making bioinformatics research an attractive option for undergraduate research.

Participants in the 2008-09 course will benefit from a pilot phage genomics course currently running at the University of Pittsburgh. SEA staff will use student and faculty experiences in the pilot course to refine the curriculum and develop additional resources for professors and students.

Besides WUSTL, the institutions that will participate in the SEA phage genomics research initiative in academic year 2008-09 are: Carnegie Mellon University; The College of William and Mary; Hope College (Holland, Mich.); James Madison University; Oregon State University; Spelman College (Atlanta); University of California, San Diego; University of California, Santa Cruz; University of Louisiana at Monroe; University of Mary Washington (Fredericksburg, Va.); and University of Maryland, Baltimore County.